Donald Trump declared this week: “When I make promises, I keep them.” At the same time he delivered the lesson that the United States cannot be relied on to stick to its agreements.
In announcing US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed in 2015 with Iran by the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany to wind back its progress towards nuclear weapons capability, Trump has also told key Atlantic partners their views don’t count.
As a result, Washington now has three key European partners – Britain, France, and Germany – vowing to work with China, Russia and Iran itself to counteract its policy in this key strategic issue. Malcolm Turnbull says Australia will work with them too. Nice one, Donald, following withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The US administration is now working to reapply and intensify sanctions on Iran within the next six months. These will punish European and Asian companies doing business with Iran, or importing its oil, by restricting their access to the US banking system.
The European Union and member governments say they will do their best to immunise their companies from the sanctions, and are sending foreign ministers to Tehran next week to assure the Iranians. “The international reach of US sanctions makes the US the economic policeman of the planet, and that is not acceptable,” said French finance minister Bruno Le Maire. The British are in the most delicate position. The City of London would be critical to evading US sanctions, but Theresa May is desperate for an early US free trade agreement as Brexit starts next year. Turnbull said Australia “regretted” Trump’s decision and would work with the Europeans. “We encourage all parties to continue to comply with the deal, and we certainly are trying to support that,” he said.
British foreign minister Boris Johnson, who’d gone to Washington in a last-minute bid to dissuade Trump, said there as “very little evidence of a plan B” to the 2015 nuclear agreement, winding back Iran’s uranium enrichment capability for 15 years.
Trump’s plan B seems to be that tighter sanctions will produce either regime change or a drastic policy retreat. Many analysts think in the short term they actually help Tehran hardliners who opposed the agreement and weaken moderates around President Hassan Rouhani.
Iran’s economy is already in bad shape. The nuclear deal unlocked frozen foreign exchange reserves and let Western corporations look at new operations in Iran. But cumbersome investment rules, continuing US banking controls and active interference by Iranian security agencies delayed any investment boom. A five-year drought has raised food prices, unemployment is deepening and the currency is collapsing.
For the time being, Rouhani is in tune with European advice to show restraint. In a TV broadcast after Trump spoke, he said Iran would take no immediate steps to resume uranium enrichment, and would talk to the five non-US signatories. If Iran’s interests could be secured under the agreement, “we will continue the process”, he said. “And if the deal is to be just a piece of paper, then our next steps will be clear.”
Talking the walk
As Trump spoke, his new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was on his way to Pyongyang for his second meeting with Kim Jong-un to prepare for the North Korean leader’s rendezvous with Trump, likely to be in Singapore in mid June.
Pompeo brought back three detained US citizens, to be greeted by Trump as a win. But while making this gesture, the North Koreans indicated through a broadcast last weekend they were irked by Trump’s bragging it was his military threats that brought them to negotiate. Kim also met China’s Xi Jinping on Tuesday for the second time in six weeks to cover his back.
Trump thinks his Iran decision will strengthen his credibility with Kim. “Today’s action sends a critical message,” he said. “The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them … Plans are being made, relationships are building. Hopefully, a deal will happen, and with the help of China, South Korea and Japan, a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everyone.”
Kim is likely to conclude that: (a) so far, US threats to North Korea have been empty, and (b) promises by a US president are worthless if they can be reversed by the next president, or undermined by a hostile congress, as happened with the Clinton administration’s 1994 agreement with Kim’s father for energy supplies in return for a nuclear cap.
For 60 years since the British handed over power, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has ruled in the Malayan peninsula, with Sabah and Sarawak later added to form Malaysia. Political contest was all about leadership within UMNO. With Malays and other indigenous communities 69 per cent of the population, it couldn’t be otherwise – as long as they were happy.
And UMNO has worked hard to keep them happy. After anti-Chinese riots in 1969, UMNO took up the message of a book written by one of its young guard, Mahathir Mohamad, to redress imbalances in wealth and opportunity by giving Malays preference in civil service jobs, finance and contracts. The other big ethnic minorities, the Chinese (24 per cent) and Indians (7 per cent) had to lump it, or leave.
Mahathir, who became prime minister in 1981 and stayed until 2003, perfected the Malay bias and centralised power in his office, intervening to curb the independence of the courts and the monarchy (rotated among the nine Malay sultans). After he stepped down, he continued to pull strings in UMNO, installing and removing successors.
But this year, Mahathir decided UMNO itself had to go. Its prime minister, Najib Razak, had gone beyond the usual Malaysia Inc cronyism to an obscene degree. He is alleged to have creamed a massive kickback on a French submarine contract while defence minister, then had a Mongolian translator murdered for attempting blackmail over the deal. As prime minister, he has been accused by US authorities over $US4.5 billion missing from an official development fund, 1MDB, including $US681 million that went into his personal account. Much of the money went into luxury properties, a yacht, and jewellery via a high-living young financier, Low Taek Jho, who had befriended Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, and stepson, Riza Aziz.
Mahathir’s switch gave him some strange bedfellows. He aligned himself with the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition led by the family of his former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, and including his former Chinese-based opposition. When Anwar mounted a leadership challenge in 1998, Mahathir had him put away on dubious sodomy charges, later overturned. Najib conjured up the same charge to jail the troublesome opposition leader Anwar in 2015 for five years.
Najib tried everything to produce an election win: gerrymander, campaign restrictions, penalties for “fake news” on social media, polling on a workday, state-controlled media playing the race and religion cards, and bribery to keep the Malays on side. Wednesday’s vote saw what Mahathir predicted, a Malay “tsunami” against a corrupt leader.
A shattered Najib emerged to concede defeat on Thursday morning. Mahathir, with the support of about 122 of the 222 members of parliament, was likely to be invited later by the king to form a government. Mahathir has promised to seek a pardon for Anwar as soon as possible, and if Anwar returns to parliament in a byelection, to hand over leadership to him.
In a time of perceived democratic regression, it was a remarkable turn, from an electorate that seemed bribed into complacency and a 92-year-old former leader usually noted for his autocratic ways.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Trump’s Iran pact pullout snubs Europe".
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